The Secret Garden on 81st Street | Review
The Secret Garden on 81st Street
by Ivy Noelle Weir; illustrated by Amber Padilla
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $24.99 (hardcover), $12.99 (paperback)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a classic young adult novel, written over a hundred years ago. There’s something beautiful to the story about an orphan girl finding new family and friends through resurrecting a forgotten garden, but it’s also quite dated. (A bereaved child ignored? Someone sick and disabled simply being shut away? The foreboding housekeeper? Magical healing? The class issues?)
Ivy Noelle Weir (Archival Quality) does a brilliant job adapting the familiar story into the modern day. Mary Lennox is the orphaned daughter of two parents who put all their time into Silicon Valley start-ups. After their accident, she’s sent to live in a stunning New York City townhouse. It belongs to Uncle Archie, who’s never there.
Instead of a housekeeper, there’s an assistant, who has some smart things to say about grief; instead of a friendly housemaid, a neighbor who’s agreed to work as a temporary nanny/au pair. Colin isn’t bedridden, but he stays in his room due to anxiety and panic attacks. This change is one of the best for the book, as it explains his fear of the outdoors and his tentativeness as well as his eventual improvement.
The garden isn’t walled but has the potential to be a rooftop paradise. No longer a magical animal whisperer, Dickon is an urban horticulturalist who loves Central Park.
Mary’s previous digital life, where she ordered delivery and spent her time gaming online, is replaced by one where she pets a bodega cat and explores the museums of the city. Uncle Archie is still ravaged by grief at the loss of his spouse, but here, his husband was named Masahiro. The characters have a diversity of skin tone, unremarked upon but welcome.
The selection of New York City as the foreign, almost fairytale location Mary learns and explores is an excellent choice. The Yorkshire moors of the original are forbidding but beautiful. That description also makes sense for an urban metropolis that contains such wonderful art galleries.
This is Amber Padilla’s first graphic novel, but she does an excellent job with the characters, giving them visible emotions so the text doesn’t need to spell out the many moods. The environments are well-realized, letting the reader share Mary’s discoveries. Her views of Central Park, the Museum of Natural History, the Met, MoMA, food carts, and the subway drive a desire to visit in the reader. The garden is lovely, with its slow rebirth captured through scenes of changing seasons.
More significantly, The Secret Garden on 81st Street has some important things to say about grief and recovery. Everyone has their own emotional struggles to overcome. Watching the characters make friends and learn to rely on each other while planting living things was a glorious read.
Johanna Draper Carlson has been reviewing comics for over 20 years. She manages ComicsWorthReading.com, the longest-running independent review site online that covers all genres of comic books, graphic novels, and manga. She has an MA in popular culture, studying online fandom, and was previously, among many other things, webmaster for DC Comics. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
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